March is Women's History Month. In homage, we will clear a space on the davenport for all things female in the Language Lounge. English is a particularly apt place to study women's history, because it has fossilized many concepts and attitudes about women that are undergoing reappraisal today. Word associations in English reflect, to a very large degree, a historical rather than a contemporary take on woman; the Visual Thesaurus gives us a place to study these connections.

Ushering in Changes

The good news first: contemporary English has largely abandoned feminine forms ending in ette for sound reasons: the suffix is (1) not native to English (it's borrowed from French), and it also designates (2) diminutives (smaller versions of the real thing), and (3) hypocorisms - that's techspeak for pet names and terms of endearment. The implication then is that woman are sweet little things, and even the ones who are probably do not appreciate the classification. Notwithstanding network TV's choice of bachelorette to designate a television series, these words have largely fallen from contemporary usage, though they used to be widespread in English. A couple of them linger in the Visual Thesaurus: usherette is one; if you bring it to the center, you'll see it gets no more than a dotted line connection to its parent, usher, which easily designates people of either sex. The other is farmerette, which Language Lounge confidently predicts will fall off the edge of associations before long, and return to the galaxy of idle words not retrieved in the web of the Visual Thesaurus. After all, most of the many ways to designate a hired hand on a farm can designate workers of either sex.

Keep the Mistress

English words that end in ess and that normally have a counterpart ending in er or or are slightly more problematic. While most of the -ess words designate a feminine version of some agent, many of them have particular associations that the male forms of the words do not share. Today everyone has the option of dispensing with waitress, actress, and stewardess in favor of less sexist terms: we can use the -er or -or forms to designate either sex, or we can substitute terms like server, performer, and flight attendant. Other -ess words, however, have come to occupy niches in the language that are removed from the masculine versions of the words and have very different associations. Why is it, for example, that an enchanter is a species of magician, but an enchantress is a dangerously seductive woman? While you've got her on the screen, you'll notice temptress there as well. A tempter, on the other hand, is merely one who tempts. And while mister is just a designation for a man, mistress has too many jobs in English -- and not all of them savory -- to discard for some other term at present.

When is a Woman a Chair?

Before you remove your sensible pumps and start battering your monitor, remember that the Visual Thesaurus is descriptive, not prescriptive: it describes and illustrates word associations, rather than telling you which ones should populate your synapses. Associations among English words that denote occupations also reflect an historical bias that isn't necessarily apparent in today's world. In cases like this, the language develops new usages, and language reference works, like the VT, are updated to reflect the changes. To examine this phenomenon, have a look at some words depicting occupations. Bring seamster to the center (reflecting, as you do, that no one actually uses this word) and two synonyms appear: sartor (another obscure word) and tailor. But seamstress, a word with respectable currency today, calls up four synonyms. It seems English speakers expect to see woman with needle in hand more often than man. Another word with asymmetrical associations is foreman: it calls up four respectable synonyms, while forewoman (a word you probably haven't used this week) calls up on forelady - another word with no visible pedigree. But if what you're after is one who supervises or has direction of, you'll find a number of terms that can describe people of both sexes. The same principle applies with chair, which suitably replaces two of its species, chairman and chairwoman.

Household Drudgery

While in theory capable of being a chair at least half the time, Woman as yet cannot escape the association with char at any time: you'll find that no manly word is in sight when this word is at the center of things. Char is from an older English word, chare, which in turn means "piece of work." It is also the source of the modern English word chore, and perhaps symbolizes, to some degree, the notion that woman's work is never done. But you'll notice that char, an old-fashioned word, is mostly associated with other old-fashioned words. Bring cleaner to the center and you'll see it's a species of manual laborer, one of dozens of kinds that can designate people of either sex.

We can expect that the English of the future will continue to become less sexist as the people who speak it do. At the same time, however, English will continue to be a repository for what people have thought in the past, and it's unlikely that English will ever shake off the asymmetry that has long existed in different ways of designating men and women. That's why woman of the street has a string of associations that come to the mind of the man on the street; and why English has made room for a man of the world, a man of action, a man of means, and a man of affairs, but still keeps a place for a woman of the house.

And There's More

If you want to insure that your usage meets the rigorous standards of political correctness, you can consult some of the alternatives for sexist terms. An exhaustive list can be found at: http://www.upou.org/gender/gender_fair.htm

An ongoing problem in English is sometimes called the Pronoun Problem: the lack in English of a personal pronoun that designates both sexes, along with the undesirability of calling everything "he" or "him." Here's a description of the issue, with some suggested alternatives: http://www.herodios.com/herron_tc/pronouns.html

Like other Germanic languages, Old English was a language with three genders, and all the inflections to support them. English today only has what linguists call natural gender: things that are sexually male or female are designated with masculine and feminine pronouns; everything else is an it, with the odd exception of flags (proudly she waves), ships (Oh, better that her shattered hulk should sink beneath the wave), and sometimes countries and empires (the various ways by which Rome acquired her Empire). Here's a fascinating paper that describes the loss of grammatical gender in English. http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361ArchibaldBarber.htm


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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